Taking a Closer Look at Former Political Elites and Dissidents

Miroslav Vanek, photo: www.coh.usd.cas.cz

The Czech Centre for Oral History has recently finished collection over one hundred and twenty in-depth interviews with former communists and dissidents. The project is the first of its kind in Central and Eastern Europe and will likely serve as a precedent for other former communist countries. Fifty of the interviews will be published for the general public early next year, while the rest of the material will be made available to academics for further analysis. We spoke to the centre's director, Miroslav Vanek.

Miroslav Vanek,  photo: www.coh.usd.cas.cz
NB: What is the significance of oral history for contemporary Czech history?

Dr. Vanek: "We lost a lot of sources, like written documents, a lot sources were produced by the totalitarian regime. If you wish to understand our past, you have to try to find other sources, I think oral history is one of the ways you can understand our history."

NB: What kind of things can we find out from oral history that we can't find out from written documents?

Dr. Vanek: "We can better understand the people who decided about specific things, specific decisions. We can better under the pressures they were under, for example. We can better understand their family background, we can better understand decision making among the communist functionaries."

NB: What kind of themes did you focus on in this study?

Dr. Vanek: "It's about life stories, we focused people's entire lives. We started with very broad questions about family background, we asked about schools, teachers, first professional steps, first functions for those in the communist sphere, we asked about the first steps against the regime for those in the dissident movement. We were mainly concerned about the period of so-called normalization. We spoke about events like Charter 77 we spoke about the role of Gorbachev and the so called Perestroika."

NB: I am curious about the communist functionaries and the motivation, can you just tell me about that?

Dr. Vanek: "I don't want to generalise, but there are some motives that are the same. If we asked them why they prefered ideology like marxism and communism, they told us it was a result of the Second World War. The second is that they grew up in very poor families, they told us, if I grow up in a poor family, I have more social feeling and communist ideology is something that is right for me, it is the right way for me, because I want to help others and I saw that this was the best way for me, this was the motivation."

NB: How did they deal with the contradiction between the official ideology and daily reality?

Dr Vanek: "I see two groups. The older communists strongly believed their ideology. They did not talk about a imbalance between ideology and reality. I think they believed strongly in the ideology. But there is the second group, the younger communists, they were between forty and fifty in 1989, they are a little bit different, I think they were more pragmatic, they saw that there was this system and they wanted to use this system for their careers."

NB: Were there major differences between the higher functionaries and the lower functionaries?

Dr. Vanek: "I was so surprised, when I spoke to people with the central committee of the communist party, people from the top, like Milous Jakes. They told me that the functionaries from regions, not from the districts, that they had like their own kingdoms, that these people could decide about a lot of things and that they used this power. Sometimes it was hard for the general secretary to persuade them to be like he wanted them to be."

NB: What did the lower functionaries have to say?

Dr Vanek: "They said that they could not manage more because the Centre decided about everything. But on the other hand, their power was bigger than I thought before this research."

NB: Was it difficult to get members of the communist party to talk?

Dr Vanek: "Yes, it was very difficult, a lot of people did their first public interview in fifteen years. We spoke to psychologist, we spoke to each other about our experiences from the last project, but it was different because now we wanted to interview the losers.

"You have to find the right person who to help you. It was the first goal. Like a gatekeeper. We found one man who helped us and when we got the first name and interview it was like a snowball. Sometimes the functionaries from East Bohemia and North Bohemia came here to make sure we were a real research centre. They didn't believe for example that the police did not want to get information about them, there were a lot of problems."

NB: What were the most valuable insights that you gained from interviewing former communist party members?

Dr Vanek: "After this research I understand that it was very hard, more than someone thought before and after. I don't think that everything was so clear. The people who decided about everything were only human beings. But they were under a lot of stress and the border between making a good decision or a bad decision was very thin."

NB: Can you tell me about similarities or differences in the experiences of the communists and the dissidents?

Dr Vanek: "I see that the functionaries were very isolated people, very isolated as a group, who lived in like a ghetto. The second ghetto were our dissidents. I think that it is similar. Both groups were totally different, but they lived in their own worlds. The functionaries had their own specific language, which is totally different from the dissident one.

"I am sure that they lived in ghettos which were so isolated and that both groups did not understand society. The communists believed that everything was going well. The dissidents spoke about moral and ethics, I am sure it is very important for every society, I have a good opinion of it. But on the other hand I don't think they were so relevant for the events inside the society. I think that the society was totally in a different space than both these groups were at this time."